Studying New Ritual

Looking through the lens of material culture.

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Objects also indicate the intensity of our fellow Jews' commitment and connection to certain fundamental indicators of Jewish life and help establish the particular community to which they belong. Listen to Jews interrogate each other. We do not typically ask. "Do you believe in God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might?" We will not ask, "Do you remember that God rested on the Sabbath day by keeping it holy?"

Rather, we inquire about the materiality of enacted beliefs and habits of conviction: "Do you drive a car on Shabbat? Carry keys? In your house, do you separate your meat and milk dishes in different cabinets and have two sinks? Do you cover your head, wear a wig, put on tefillin, hang a mezuzah on your door, sleep in separate beds (to observe the laws of family purity), eat uncooked foods (like salad) at nonkosher restaurants, light menorahs, spin dreidels?" The objects tell the story…

The Spiritual Life of Objects

Objects construct and play roles in the Jewish spiritual lives of individuals and communities. Can we then go so far as to speak of objects as having religious or spiritual lives as well?" Are objects spiritual agents? Independent of people who can perceive the sanctity of objects, can objects be autonomous sources of the sacred, provocateurs of sacred experience? Let us consider, for instance, the following question: is a Torah scroll holy regard less of whether someone recognizes holiness in it or attributes holiness to it?

French Sociologist Marcel Mauss, in his classic study of the nature of the gift and gift exchange, explains that a thing can possess spiritual power. In particular, when a thing is given as a gift, it possesses a soul, and "it follows that to make a gift of something to someone is to make a present of some part of oneself." Gift giving, and endless rounds of reciprocation, represent for Mauss an intermingling of the sacred and the material: "Souls are mixed with things; things with souls. Lives are mingled together; and this is how, among things and persons so intermingled, emerges from their own sphere and mixes together."

If we could, like Mauss, imagine objects having spiritual agency, might we speak about the spiritual lives of Jewish objects in particular? What special characteristics do Jewish objects--or objects characteristically used by Jews in predictable ways--have? We may discover that objects in the lives of Jews have complex Jewish identities: solid, ambivalent, erratic, or angst filled like the Jewish identities of people. We may also discover that just as memory recovers lost, stolen, and rejected worlds and forgotten ways of being Jewish, objects-those present, those retrieved, and even those dimly recalled--may do as well.

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Vanessa Ochs

Vanessa Ochs is the Ida and Nathan Kolodiz Director of Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia and associate professor of Religious Studies.